I decided to move this discussion from the comments on the Welcome page to the weblog since it is an interesting topic. Joe first posted:
Copied from Jason at Per Crucem ad Lucem
The reviewer as gate-keeper
by Jason Goroncy
By and large, I enjoy reading and writing book reviews. And I’ve mentioned before about my chat with a friend about the purpose of book reviews wherein he offered the following description of the reviewer’s task:
To help the writers know they are understood and appreciated without too much attention to their mistakes, to help the readers know whether or not it is for them, to identify one or two critical issues worth discussing along the way, and to ease the conscience of the reviewer about all the free books s/he has acquired through this means, not all of which were ever read. I still like my friend’s ‘reviewer job description’ and, as a rule, it represents what I hope to do when I’m reviewing a book. During a recent binge with Updike (now there’s a reviewer!), my antennae were re-alerted to my responsibility as a reviewer to engage critically with the text/s under my surveillance, to dwell longer – though not for too long – in those somewhat less salutary spaces (whether they be factual or editorial) within the book’s covers, particularly when the book is otherwise especially praiseworthy, or when the author is a friend. By neglecting such a task, it seems to me that reviewer’s are doing neither the author nor the reader a favour, are abrogating an important responsibility, and are left feeling like the bookseller’s unpaid serf who has sold short the book’s author, publisher (good publishers and editors do care about this kind of thing), readers, and the reviewer’s own academic credibility (not that I hold the latter too tightly anyway).
One of my favourite bloggers, Mary Beard (professor in classics at Cambridge), recently had this to say about reviewing:
If reviewing doesn’t act as a gate-keeper of sorts, the success of a book will come down only to the size of its publicity budget and the enthusiasm of its publishers’ tweets.
Here I can agree with one caveat: most publishers select books they are sure they can market profitably. Still, the success of a book is sometimes not as simple as the publicity budget (and I have no contact with “tweets” so I’ll assume they are just another way for the publisher to hype the product).
I like that. Of course, gate-keepers worthy of hire will be those who are cognisant of, and honest about, the limits of their knowledge; but they will endeavour to humbly keep gate, which is, I’m assuming, a somewhat different job to being a tourist guide, or to being an author’s, publisher’s, or bookseller’s hooker. Gate-keepers worthy of hire will certainly be those who, in Stephen Burn’s words, talk less ‘about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories or using the book under review as little more than a platform to promote themselves and their agendas’. They will also be those who will, and that as best as they can, tell the truth like Presbyterians; i.e., decently and in order.
My original response to Joe was
Someone said that all fiction is autobiography. It would seem that that holds doubly true for all reviews of fiction. But comments on or reactions to literature are what most reading weblogs deal with, not critical pronouncements nor objective reviews. I like the idea of being a travel agent for literature (an honest travel agent, not looking for kick-backs from Don DeLillo). I see my commentary on reading, the books I read and the lists of books I have read or recommend, as being a guide to other readers who might be seeking some direction, if only for that first important step. From then on, literature is their oyster.
Thinking about the analogy, a travel agent is not what I initially envisioned. I was thinking more of a tour guide as Joe wrote.
I have published my adventures in reading online for over fifteen years; the formats have varied but the contents have been relatively static, except for growth. I started with an all-text site that I tossed together using a word processor, moved into some of the early software that created websites, bounced around a few ISP until settling at Apple, and now I have moved on to WordPress and joined my weblog with my website. At all times I believe the value of my reading lists, cogent remarks and wild-assed opinions have been attraction to reading and not literary advice: my best responses through the years have been from readers who see literature opening up for them with a little nudge from ACOR.
I’m not sure I want to be a gate-keeper. A gate-keeper is someone who denies access to people or entities that do not qualify for admission. Now if I think of that in terms of the readers who come to this site, I am certainly don’t want to be in a position of denying them access to literature. I’ll even welcome you if you admit to having not read Ulysses … yet. But perhaps the function of gate-keeper is to judge the literature that is acceptable for the visitors to this site. That sounds too much like censorship to me and even though I am open about my likes and dislikes, far be it from me to tell someone else what they should read or think. If you like Hemingway, you are still welcome at ACOR (but I’ve got my eye on you).
One last comment: on weblogs such as this, the chances of maintaining things “decently and in order” sounds horrible to me. I guess I prefer good old Anarchism to Presbyterianism.